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How To Apply Sunscreen -
And Other Ways to Prevent Sunburn

If you know how to apply sunscreen and take other common sense precautions, you may never know what it is to have a sunburn.

How to apply sunscreen

Choose your sunscreen


There are lots of options:

  • lotions
  • gels
  • sprays
  • solids

For large areas of the body, a lotion or spray sunscreen is usually the most practical, but you should choose what works best for you.

solid sunscreen

One year, my toddler refused to let us put either lotion or spray on him. He would tolerate only the purple solid stick sunscreen. It's intended just for faces, but we used it to cover all of his exposed skin! It took a long time, and we went through a lot of sticks!

That's when we decided to buy sunscreen clothing for our kids!

toddler in SPF suit

Get ready

Gather your supplies and your children. Do this at your campsite, before you head out for the day's adventures. Once you get where the fun is, chances of getting your children to stand still are slim! Sunscreen needs at least 15 minutes to absorb into the skin for best results, anyway.

Don't put on sunscreen at the beach! Nothing is more irritating - to parent or to child - than trying to put sunscreen on a body that is already dusted with sand!

If you are using a lotion, give it a good shake to mix it.

Apply sunscreen

Here's how to apply sunscreen on the whole family.

Use lots. If you are using a lotion, plan to use about a handful of sunscreen per person.

Cover all exposed skin. Don't forget the nose, the ears, the underside of the lips, and the backs of knees.

Make sure that you put the sunscreen on your younger children, even if they insist that they know how to apply sunscreen themselves. Missing even one spot can lead to a nasty burn. Older children can apply sunscreen themselves, but they'll need help with the hard-to-reach places.

applying sunscreen

Reapply as needed

Sunscreen will wash off in water or with heavy sweating - even so-called "water-resistant" sunscreen.

Here's a photo of my son's back after a day at the lake. I applied sunscreen liberally in the morning, but neglected to reapply it.


More ways to prevent sunburn

Stay in the shade

Stay out of direct sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. 
Plan your beach excursions during the morning or late afternoon. Spend the hours closest to noon playing in the shade. It's a good time to get out the board games!

If you avoid the sun completely, you can avoid having to learn how to apply sunscreen altogether!

Cover up

If you must be out when the sun is at its peak, wear a wide brimmed hat, or a hat with an attached bandanna that covers the back of your neck. 
Wear light colored long sleeved clothing.

wearing hats and sunglasses

I can't speak highly enough about sun protection suits - especially for the littlest ones! The suits are pricey, but if you buy them large and hand them down from child to child they will last you for several years. If they prevent just one sunburn - or one sunscreen-fueled tantrum - they are worth it! Now that SPF suits are becoming more common, you may even be able to find some at the thrift store or consignment shop.

pink SPF suit

For years, I almost forgot how to apply sunscreen! I dressed my children from head to toe in sun protective clothing: one piece sunsuits (a couple of sizes too large, for more complete protection and longer wear), sunhats with huge brims, and sunglasses. It was so easy!

Wear sunglasses

hat and sunglasses

It's true - you can get a sunburn on your eyes!

Both the cornea (the clear film that covers the focusing part of your eye) and the conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the rest of white of your eye) can be burned by the sun. A mild case of eye sunburn may have these symptoms:

  • redness
  • pain
  • swelling

It will heal on its own - but you'll be miserable until it does! 
In a more severe case that affects your vision, you should seek medical attention. You may need to patch both eyes for a couple of days to allow for healing.

Be aware

You should be especially careful about preventing sunburn in certain situations:

At the beginning of sun season

For years, I got one bad sunburn at the beginning of every summer. I seemed unable to remember the simple fact that the sun burns - until I was reminded by the resulting pain, redness and itching.

On cloudy days

You might not remember the sunscreen because you don't feel hot - but it's not the temperature that burns you. It's the light which is still shining through the clouds.

On windy days

Again, the wind cools you down so that you might forget about sunburn danger - but the wind actually enhances the sun's power.

When something has changed

Once year, my eldest son wore a baseball cap all summer. Since his hair covered his ears, putting sunscreen on his ears was not part of our routine. But then he got a haircut - and I forgot to change our routine! His poor ears burned so badly that they blistered, and really hurt!

At the beach and on the water

beach scene

You probably know that sun reflects strongly off the water. If you are out in a boat, you should be extra careful to cover up and use sunscreen. Did you also know that sun reflects off sand and snow, too?

Learning how to apply sunscreen properly and taking some easy precautions will ensure that you never need to know how to treat a sunburn!

If you do end up with a sunburn, despite knowing how to apply sunscreen, click here for some pointers on reducing the pain and speeding healing.

Click here to return to the Complete Family Camping Guide home page.

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